Ancient Egypt - Pharaoh Akhenaten

Updated: Feb 10

Known as Amenhotep IV before he changed his name to Akhenaten, he became the crown prince during his father's reign, as featured in the last episode. Crown Prince Tuthmosis was originally to succeed his father, but died relatively young and the throne passed to his younger brother. Debate circulates whether his father, Amenhotep III, used Amenhotep IV as a co-regent. Nevertheless, he became king upon his father's death.

Queen Nefertiti

The beginning of Amenhotep IV's reign marked no great discontinuity with that of his predecessors. Not only was he crowned at the temple of the god of Amun, in Karnak, but like his father, he married a lady of non-royal blood, Nefertiti, the daughter of the vizier Kheperkheperure Ay. Nefertiti's mother is not known, but Ay was the brother of Queen Tiye.

Nefertiti was made famous by her statue, which is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. It was attributed to the sculptor Thutmose, and it was found in his workshop. The bust is notable for exemplifying the understanding Ancient Egyptians had regarding realistic facial proportions. It is described as the most famous bust of ancient art, comparable only to the mask of Tutankhamun.

The Aten and the City of Akhetaten

Initially, Amenhotep IV lived with Nefertiti and his six daughters at Thebes. He built several massive buildings at Karnak, including temples to the god Aten. The god was usually depicted as a sun disk with rays extending with long arms and tiny human hands at each end. The Aten was not a new deity, but had been venerated since the Old Kingdom as a relatively minor aspect of the sun god Ra.

Year 5 of Amenhotep IV's reign changed everything. He disbanded the priesthoods of all other gods and diverted the income of these cults to support the Aten, which he was establishing as the sole god of Egypt. To emphasize his complete allegiance to the Aten, he officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, 'Living Spirit of Aten'. He also began construction of a new capital called Akhetaten, 'The Horizon of the Aten'.

Known as el-Amarna, it was a virgin site not previously dedicated to any gods or goddesses. To speed up construction of the city, which was located halfway between Memphis and Thebes, most of the buildings were erected with mud-brick and white washed. The most important buildings were faced with local stone. Amarna is the only ancient city which preserved great details of its internal plan, in

large part because the city was abandoned after the death of Akhenaten. Bob Brier notes, “Akhetaten was an entire city built at one time to the glory of one god.” This was a first for the history books.

Akhenaten centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city remains to have continued for several more years. His temples to Aten were constructed on a massive scale and were open to the sunlight, unlike the dark temple enclosures as before.

In Year 9, Akhenaten banned all images except the solar disk and declared that the Aten was not merely supreme god, but the only god to worship. In doing this, he created the world's first monotheistic religion, noting 'There is no god but the Aten.' This was an incredible declaration in a world of polytheistic religions; an abstract god with no image. This must have been a very confusing time for the Egyptians. They never had an abstract god before. They were use to gods you could create in statues, something physical. With Akhenaten, now you had the rays of the sun, only one god,

something way ahead of its time... something truly amazing.

An interesting message, and one to consider, Akhenaten wrote that the Aten was the god of everyone: the Syrians, Palestinians, and Nubians. This belief changed the divine order. With this concept, Egypt was no longer special in a sense, 'The Aten shines on everyone'. Akhenaten presented himself as the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt and made a complete break from the priests of Amun.

In the tomb of Ay occurs the longest and best rendition of a composition known as the “Hymn to the Aten', said to have been written by Akhenaten himself. Quite moving in itself as a piece of poetry, its similarity to Psalm 104 has long been noted. It sums up the whole ethos of the Aten cult and especially the concept that only Akhenaten had access to the god:

'Thou arisest fair in the horizon of heaven, O Living Aten,

Beginner of Life...There is none who knows thee save

thy son Akhenaten. Thou hast made him wise in thy

plans and thy power.' -Hymn to the Aten

No longer did the dead call upon Osiris to guide them through the afterworld; for only through the intercession of Akhenaten could they hope to live beyond the grave. On a wider scale, throughout Egypt, this new cult does not seem to have had much effect at a common level. Ordinary people had little to do with the religious establishment anyway, and these changes only affected the high days and holidays.

Portraits of the Pharaoh

Styles of art that flourished during this short period were extremely different from other Egyptian art. Akhenaten and his family were shown with elongated heads, protruding stomachs, heavy hips, thin arms and legs, and exaggerated facial features. The reason for these representations remain unknown and is a vigorously debated question. For the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, the pharaoh's family were shown taking part in normal family activities, showing affection for each other,

and being caught in mid action, in contrast to the traditional art where the pharaoh's divine nature was expressed by repose and even immobility.


The succession of kings at the end of the 18th Dynasty is a matter of great debate and confusion due to the lack of written sources. Smenkhkare, who was possibly Akhenaten's brother or son, was the nominal successor to the throne. But he may have died months after his succession and the throne passed to a shadowy figure known as Neferneferuaten, who was either one of his daughters or Nefertiti, herself. She was, in turn, most likely succeeded by Tutankhamun, with the country being administered by the chief vizier and future pharaoh, Ay.

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